My Fresh Hell
Life in Scribbletown.

Grace - Part II

2006-03-30

I'll be out tomorrow so I'll leave you with more of the novel. Don't get too bored while I'm gone!

Jessie unmutes the television and the host is back, interviewing some gloomy young man who’s just written his first Broadway play. He answers her questions in single word sentences, barely containing his contempt for her. He takes a sip from the GMA mug by his side and purses his mouth in disgust. Did he expect gourmet coffee or vodka over what I imagine is just water? I wait for him to spit on national television but he disappoints me. He answers another question, his Adam’s apple rising and falling as he speaks, and glances at his watch. He slumps further in his chair, adjusts his leather jacket, runs a hand through his unwashed spiky black hair, sighs audibly. I find it hard to believe, for a moment, that these people even exist.

“Guess I better get to work.” I know better than to take my plate and glass to the sink. Jessie rules this room and everything in it. If she’s served you, she likes to finish the job. I never feel comfortable in the position of one served but I don’t argue Jessie’s self-imposed rules.

I walk toward the butler’s pantry where the cleaning supplies are kept, sweeping my hair back from my forehead. I suppose I must have let out a sigh, unconsciously, as I did it.

“You okay?” Jessie always surprises me. I never know when she’s paying attention and when she’s playing kitchen maid.

“Fine. Is Louisa around today?” I have yet to talk to my employer face to face since my return. She’s either involved in some volunteer activity or at the hair salon.

“You know She don’t want to see you yet. You’s Her special charity right now. She don’t like to look charity in the face. But The Honorable’s up for re-election so they’s been off shaking hands and going to parties in Richmond.”

“Well, I better get started then.”

The routine at Louisa’s rarely varies. I still remember it after so much time, though Louisa has left me a detailed list. I do the downstairs on Mondays and the upstairs on Wednesdays. Today I’m downstairs but there’s not much to do since they haven’t been home in awhile. But, then, with the children grown and gone, there’s only so much mess an old couple can make when they’re too busy doing things they think are important.

That’s not kind, I suppose. It just seems there’s so little point in worrying about all the things even money can’t really fix, despite the bills The Honorable helps pass (or defeat) and Louisa’s volunteer work. There will always be poor people, sick people, lazy people, people with addictive personalities with nothing to stop them, people who make bad decisions and who don’t know how to treat children right. I’ve never been in a position to stand over another and decide whether their actions are right or wrong. Never seen that it would make much difference either way. So, I just mind my business. That course seems the best to take, especially now. Especially right this minute, back at the scene of the crime, the last place I ever thought I’d be again.

In the living room, I vacuum the camel colored carpets and the Oriental area rug on top, dust the book spines in the built-ins and the knick-knacks on the fireplace mantel, shake the heavy jacquard port wine and beige drapes, fluff the matching silk and embroidered pillows on the sofas, Windex the mirror over the scroll top desk in the corner. All of the furniture is old, passed down from either Louisa’s or The Honorable’s ancestors, and it looks it. Both can claim General Lee as an ancestor. His portrait hangs in the foyer—the first thing visitors see. The whole effect is one of dark gloomy wood and dark fussy colors; the braided pulls and tassels hold back the drapes, the paintings of stern forefathers stare at me across the room (except for Lee, who just looks sad and defeated), the collection of blue and white Chinese vases and bowls—it’s all lost on me.

When I worked here before, there were days I’d pretend the place was a museum, one of those historic homes, a moment frozen in time. I half expected to catch a glimpse of a ghost flitting between the front and back parlors, hiding behind the pocket doors that separate the two rooms. Even the inside of the cabinets under the bookshelves have that musty, nothing-disturbed-for-a-hundred-years smell. The odor of time standing still, moth balls in a vacuum. Those cabinets spelled my doom, were my ultimate undoing, the reason I now live in sparse circumstances. And yet, I feel the urge to open that one door on the far left, which is now blocked by a wing chair covered in a hunting scene tapestry. I look at the hounds rounding the chair’s arm followed by part of a man with a green felt hat, horn to mouth. His back end is obscured by a cushion. The fox is within site, the hounds howl, the horses along the seat back gallop across the meadow, their masters on their backs. Headed for the one spot I cannot touch.

I never took the silver, all wrapped in special soft bags with pull strings. I knew better than that. The point was not to collect valuable things, simply things in need of a home, things that needed care, a purpose. I have found that people tend to own more useless items than useful ones. So much stuff, so much clutter in the world. So many things created and then just tossed aside. Abandoned. When Florence left, things began to speak to me. It wasn’t voices I heard; I’m not crazy. Please don’t think that. I simply found that I could feel the yearning of objects that wished only to be useful, to serve some purpose. The china cat and kittens at the Franklins was the first thing. The fake Staffordshire ladies that lived in Louisa’s living room cabinet were the last. Now, I’m sure, they are gone. And the jewelry she kept hidden in them is no doubt in a safe deposit box where it should have been in the first place. But the pull is still there. The need to create purposefulness.

The women in my ward never really understood, thought I was a little off. They were in for straight-forward crimes: theft, robbery, abuse—most of it being in the wrong place at the wrong time, aiding and abetting the wrong man. Things done for a reason: money, drugs, and love. Crimes of passion, they understand. While I was also booked as a thief, it wasn’t for profit, wasn’t to feed a habit, wasn’t to feed anyone or anything. I was just rescuing the unloved, unremembered, unneeded. The others considered themselves victims of men, of circumstance. I had only myself to blame and I did. Even the psychologist tried to pin much of the blame on my mother, my “inconsistent upbringing” as she called it. She even tried to bring up Jeremy, but I wouldn’t talk about him. What’s over and done is over and done. I can’t change the past. At some point, you have to realize that many of your failings are of your own doing. You have to just accept it and move on. The other women didn’t want to hear that.

There’s a clatter of dishes as Jessie goes back to filling the dishwasher. I move on to The Honorable’s den, passing through the dining-room-frozen-in-time that needs no more than a dust rag run across the tops of a cherry sideboard, a corner china cabinet filled with more Chinese porcelain, and the ten Queen Anne chairs around the long oval Queen Anne table. The den is The Honorable’s home office where, in addition to his law office on Broad Street and his storefront headquarters during campaigns, he does the real business of a delegate for the Virginia General Assembly. This is where he talks, drinks and smokes. This is where the deals are made, the votes decided. I am never here when he is – I only ever see the before and after of anything that goes on—but Jessie tells me about all the visitors he gets around election time and the door to the den is always, always closed when he’s here.

The room is large, paneled in dark oak with a plush brown carpet on the floor. Framed newspaper articles and commendations hang on the walls behind special glass that prevents fading. His two degrees—undergraduate from Hampden-Sydney and a law degree from William & Mary—are crowded out by photos of him shaking the hands of past governors. My two favorites are the two oldest: In the first, The Honorable Albert Carter Ferncliff III, back when he was first elected to the Assembly, is shaking hands and smiling at Governor Almond. It’s a windy day and The Honorable has his free hand on his hat. Almond has a funny look on his face, a mixture of confusion (who is this guy?) and gregariousness (smile for the camera!). I always imagine that The Honorable has shoved his way through the crowd to get the photograph, almost pouncing on the governor.

The second shows him getting his back slapped by Governor Harrison. They are both laughing at something, standing on the Capitol grounds, as a squirrel sits in the crook of a tree branch behind them eating an acorn. In this one, though, it’s The Honorable who looks uneasy, like the joke’s on him. His face is turned toward Harrison but his eyes cut to the side, like the governor has just put a “Kick Me” sign on his back. Harrison is looking off to his left, like he’s waiting for someone to arrive and save him from this photo op.

The photos, lined up along the wall in chronological order, with The Honorable almost always on the left and the governor of the moment on the right, have the effect of being forced, staged, an obsession, a collection obtained at any cost, no matter the governor’s political stance. Perhaps that is what we have in common.

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9:08 a.m. ::
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